Are They Really Clean and Sober Just Because They Have Stopped Drinking?

Let's think of our loved one's continued recovery by imagining a pie, and let's cut that pie into six healthy slices. Here is a list of what I believe represents each slice and the road to a clean and sober, all-encompassing lifestyle.
08/29/2012 10:57 am ET Updated Oct 29, 2012

I recently gave a lecture at a conference, and the audience and I participated in a lively discussion as to what the next steps are for the newly-recovered alcoholic/addict as they start to embrace a life of sobriety. Everyone agreed that living/loving the active alcoholic was frustrating, painful, draining and totally exhausting.

However, on the other side of the coin, family members can find themselves pretty much in the same place when living with the clean and sober individual, if they have not started to rebuild all the other emotional, psychological and even spiritual aspects of their lives.

Often the alcoholic believes that just because they have stopped drinking they are "cured." They may come out of residential rehab, detox, or are joining an out-patient facility or participating in Alcoholics Anonymous and sport a new, almost pompous attitude or have a sense of entitlement, and they feel that they have "licked the problem" or have it under control. NOT... it's only the beginning.

Let's think of our loved one's continued recovery by imagining a pie, and let's cut that pie into six healthy slices. Here is a list of what I believe represents each slice and the road to a clean and sober, all-encompassing lifestyle.

Slice One:

This slice represents a total clean and sober existence. This means all mind-altering substances. I had a client's son that jumped up and down as if his hair was on fire demanding that I understood and agreed to the fact that he was clean and sober because he wasn't partaking in his drug of choice of Cocaine, and that a beer now and then was A-OK, and what harm would a few joints a day be? His slice of pie was even smaller than the norm as he justified his sobriety by his own terms and conditions.

Slice Two:

The second slice of a clean and sober existence would be some therapy to help a loved one in recovery deal with some deep-seeded, personal and emotional conflicts that may be stuffed somewhere deep down inside. Possibly issues of feeling less than might have stemmed from childhood, that only self-medicating would temporarily wipe away those demons. If a therapist is not in the picture then hopefully this individual is attending AA and is working with a sponsor. As much as the family might want to be a sounding board for the alcoholic's woes, uncertainties or fears, I believe that only another person who has stood in those tender addiction/recovery shoes can pass on valuable and firsthand experience and guidance. In addition, the family should extricate themselves from their loved one's recovery path, as each of us are too close to the other to really be of a neutral or unbiased benefit when it comes to help and advice.

Slice Three:

Slice number three is about schedules and commitments. Whether this loved one is returning to school, the job front or volunteer work, this piece of the pie is vital for consistency and accountability. When I was head counselor at the Salvation Army Adult Rehab, one of the most successful aspects of learning to return to society and live a clean and sober lifestyle was the six-month commitment to not only recovery, spiritual growth and faith, but a daily work schedule that was specific and regimented. Whether one worked in the warehouse, garden, kitchen or drove a truck, they were accountable to themselves, their program and the rules and regulations of the Salvation Army recovery program. Nothing is worse than one in the first six months to a year or so of recovery when the alcoholic/addict has too much time on their hands and nothing to point to (physically or emotionally) that is either income-producing or they can find pride in.

Slice Four:

Many alcoholics have a brooding, angry side to them. They can easily go from zero to 60 faster than the "normie," and maybe this was an easy trigger for them to drink or get high as they had difficulty controlling their anger or have a propensity for blaming others for their plight. Pie piece four might consider entering some anger management classes. Discussing in a group situation with others as well as a professional counselor to moderate can be very enlightening to explore triggers and healthy actions to avoid possible relapse or emotional setbacks.

Slice Five:

Living life on life's terms. Our fifth piece of the pie is for the alcoholic/addict to start living life on life's terms and accepting whatever challenges and hiccups cross their path. Life presents a myriad of ups and downs regardless of if one is in recovery or not. The recovering alcoholic/addict has to learn to brace themselves to these new bumps in the road and not run to self-medicate because they are frightened, frustrated or confused.

Slice Six:

New communication skills -- couple's counseling or family therapy. A clean and sober spouse or child can spawn some new, uncharted territory, and some issues might be present that have more to do with communication issues or expectations. Shared responsibilities for behavior issues or giving and taking in a relationship are very important to start to work on and maybe even heal. I had a client whose wife was in a residential recovery program. He told me that after a week or two of her residency he needed to attend couples counseling. I asked him why? He reported that she had some issues with their marriage: communication, expectations and intimacy, etc. I applauded that this was on the docket but questioned the timing as it seemed very premature to tackle anything other than the alcoholic/addict learning to deal with their own issues of addiction and recovery. In addition, I felt that my client might be put in front of an imaginary firing squad as the alcoholic can so easily say "Okay, now that I'm clean and sober, you do this to me, or you say that and that's why I drink." That's not fair, and the more the alcoholic/addict is grounded in their recovery, they won't need to or want to or be interested in playing the blame game.

In conclusion, your pie can be bigger or smaller than mine. Have more slices or fewer depending on your own personal needs. A spouse can add "date night" as one of the slices, or a once-a-week family dinner for one of the children. Let your imagination run free, but please understand that real recovery is only getting started once the actual drinking/using has been put in the closet.

If I can be of service, please visit my website and I invite you to explore my new book Reclaim Your Life -- You and the Alcoholic/Addict at or on Amazon. In addition, my book is available as an audio on my website.

For more by Carole Bennett, M.A., click here.

For more on addiction and recovery, click here.